Aga Khan opens Ismaili centre in Lisbon

09:01 a.m. Jul 11, 1998 Eastern By David Brough

LISBON, July 11 (Reuters) - Prince Karim Aga Khan, spiritual leader of the world's Shia Ismaili Moslems, on Saturday opened a $30 million Ismaili centre in Lisbon to promote economic and social development programmes and cultural activities.

The building, which combines Islamic and Iberian architectural styles and is decorated with hand-painted tiles, has a prayer hall for Portugal's Shia Ismaili Moslems.

It also has classrooms, meeting rooms and exhibition spaces.

A similar centre is located in central London.

``The donors' social conscience has led to an array of facilities and a place of enriching dialogue,'' the 61-year-old U.S.-educated Karim told the inauguration ceremony.

Financed by local Ismaili Moslems, the Lisbon centre houses offices of the charitable Aga Khan Development Network.

Karim directs the Network, which is involved in health, education and rural development projects across South and Central Asia and East and West Africa.

Karim, who on Saturday celebrated the 41st anniversary since he became Imam or spiritual leader, told a few hundred Shia Ismaili Moslems that the centre would promote cooperation and mutual understanding between people of different faiths.

At the ceremony attended by Portuguese President Jorge Sampaio, Karim praised a bill on religious freedom that is being considered by parliament in Lisbon.

The bill, which formally guarantees respect and equality for religions, would serve as a role model for legislation in other countries, said Karim, who has a degree in Islamic history from Harvard University.

``Social harmony coupled with religious freedom is a prerequisite for attaining human progress,'' said Karim, whose community numbers 12 to 15 million people in 25 countries.

President Sampaio said: ``This centre will bear witness to the re-encounter of two heritages that moulded the (Iberian) peninsular civilisation, that of the East and that of the West, that of Islam and that of Judaic-Christian tradition.''

The community of Shia Ismaili Moslems in Portugal is one of the largest in continental Europe and numbers several thousand, including many who fled Mozambique during a 16-year civil war.

Karim is the 49th hereditary Imam of the Shia Ismaili Moslems. His followers believe he is a direct descendant of the Prophet Mohammad through his cousin and son-in-law, Ali, the first Imam, and his wife Fatima, the Prophet's daughter.

Unlike his flamboyant father Prince Aly Khan who was once married to Hollywood actress Rita Hayworth, Karim has generally shunned publicity but is reputed to manage the same vast fortune his family has traditional enjoyed.

Copyright 1998 Reuters Limited

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